Hwy 53 bridge project forces city to borrow $3.4M



The Mesabi Daily News reports today that the city of Virginia, Minnesota, is forced to seek a $3.4 million loan to complete critical early work on the new Highway 53 bridge.

The new bridge is part of a more than $240 million project to reroute Highway 53 at the behest of mining interests who demand access to ore underneath the current highway. Highway 53 was built over that land in the 1960s after the state agreed that it would move the road upon request of the mineral rights holders.

That moment came four years ago, but the sheer size of the project and the difficulty of finding a route people could agree upon, had delayed the project beyond the deadline.

The $3.4 million overrun comes from the city of Virginia’s extension of the Mesabi Trail and city utilities across the bridge.

The city, which already employs venerable local lobbyist Gary Cerkvenik, has signed on well-connected St. Paul lobbyist Ron Jerich to help recoup the funds from next year’s legislative session.

Around the region, this project is often called the “Iron Range Bridge to Nowhere,” because the mine that requested the move, United Taconite, is currently idled amid the global downturn in the iron and steel industries. Those who hold the mineral rights on the land want access anyway, whether the miner is United Taconite or someone else, today or at some unknown time in the future.

Cost overruns for a project like this could quickly become endemic. This is not a good omen.

As I wrote in a post last August:

For generations the Range has boomed and busted with the mines. We’ve moved highways, buildings, even whole towns in the hopes of prosperity. But in the expensive construction climate of the 21st century, with its even more volatile commodities markets, playing by the old playbook seems a losing proposition. For $240 million of the people’s money we’d better get $240 million back in economic value. That means not just survival of one company, or a handful of shops on the highway, but something that makes sense to my great-grandkids. Or yours. Frankly, right now, it barely makes sense at all.


  1. I understand the mining companies have mineral rights underneath the current highway. Wouldn’t it had made more “cents” for the state to purchase those mineral rights? As a state we would have been saved building a huge bridge which will be expensive to maintain. The mining company would get a profit on their mineral rights, and given the price of steel … they would also be better off.

  2. A perfect example of the welfare – subsidy system. Oh, those poor stockholders, the limits on their dividends. A quarter billion dollars. There is no possible way that is paid for by royalties.

  3. Dee Fetters says

    I guess what would scare me more than anything is the mining, blasting and upheaval of the earth around the bridge which I would think in time would compromise the structures footings or safety over time. And what a nightmare to maintain!

  4. Your writing is so negative. This has been a long time coming and the city of Virginia has known about this for years. Your just writing like this to stir up the community. Change is good. This WILL be a good thing in the long run. People just don’t realize it yet.

    • It will be a lovely bridge. It will also be the last time the Range gets something so big. Is this going to create jobs, diversify the economy, or build community or good will? I don’t think so. I am not a negative person, but I am skeptical we needed to do this in this way. I don’t need to stir up the community. Just ask the people what they think. I hear negative responses 3-1.

      • Shouldn’t you be hugging trees somewhere? I keep hearing these words “diversity”. What the h*ll do you have in mind for an economy up here since you have all the answers? We are iron miners. That’s what is here. Don’t want to hear the tourist economy either.

        so let’s hear it Minnesotabrownnose

        And to Charles, why would a mine pay for it? It’s their land they want access back to?? That’s like saying you have a neighbor who needed access to their home, but needed to use your driveway. Then you tell them, they have to get off, and you pay for their driveway. Use your head!

        • There’s a lot you don’t know about me. For instance, that I write many ideas for economic diversification. Look them up.

          Fewer than 10% of the range is in mining. If things were great we wouldn’t be having this conversation. Read the analysis of the global commodities situation. My conclusions are based on economic reality.

          • I think you forgot where you come from. Would your high school you attended even exist without mining?

            You write ideas? That’s great. President Obama has ideas too, you see how great they work out. No one cares about ideas, people want answers! Not lines of bs.

            Fewer than 10% is in mining? Is that direct jobs in the mine, or all the jobs that are involved with it also. Are grocery stores involved in mining? I know many mines them self buy products from there, so are they a spin off from mining? How about targets and ther business where the miners shop?

            Seems to me, there’s a lot more than just mining jobs lost. Falkowskis is closing, iga is closing, hallmark is closing, Kmart is closing, many places closing. Going to tell me they would still be closing if mining was going steady?

            Appreciate what mining has provided for you here. You should really provide back instead of being narcissistic a-hole.

          • @IronMiner – I still live here. Every day I work on ways to bring economic power for real people who live here. I love this place like you’ll never know. You don’t know me. Your logic is pathetic and destroying this region from the inside out.

          • Charles Niemi says

            I am confused on where you got your 10% number related to employment? According to this file http://www.dot.state.mn.us/d1/projects/hwy53relocation/pdf/Hwy-53-Economic-Impact-Study-Final-Report-1-31-14.pdf The number of all employment in 2012 excludes Itasca and Duluth just the iron range in st. Louis county was 23,038. The number of miners was 4,193. so if my math is right it is closer to 19.5%. Plus all the spin off from such jobs.

          • Charles Niemi says

            Correction 18.2% not 19.5%

      • @Charles — If you only count Range cities in St. Louis County you might be right, but for the past 30 years Iron Range populations trends have shifted out to the townships around the Range towns. And if you aren’t including Itasca County you are excluding a third of the Iron Range. You can draw the boundaries of the Iron Range many different ways. Taconite Tax Relief Area, Ten miles around the iron formation. Draw ten mile circles around all the mines. In my estimates, I guess the population to be around 60-70K. 4,500 miners (actually less now) is about 5-9 percent. I know the scope of the mining economy reaches farther, but most people on the Range work in health care, government, or the vast low income service economy.

        • Charles Niemi says

          That is direct from, MNDOT, not my numbers. So you are telling me the good people that wrote the study and the people that used the study in their report are off base? If you read further into it, it even gives future projections of outside employment and mining employment for Itasca and St. Louis country mine affected regions.

          • The report was written before what is being called a historic collapse in commodities prices. I’m not that old, but I’ve seen a number of reports like these become laughable.

            Listen, I know we can’t stop the bridge. At this point, I don’t know what the right answer is. It’s like watching a car crash in slow motion. My educated guess is this goes over budget. I would further guess that in 10 years we’ll be driving over the bridge wishing we had the money instead. Like I said, it will be a very nice bridge. And for a couple years we’ll get a construction boom from it. But I can think of so many better uses of the money. I think most folks can.

  5. Matt Matasich says

    Well said Aaron!

  6. Charles Tifft says

    It’s ridiculous that the mine is not paying for this. Whoever made such a deal was just plain foolish. Unless the cost of US steel can be brought down (which it never will so long as the the unions are involved) this region will never prosper again. This bridge will end up being a huge waste of taxpayer money for little or no benefit.

    • Look above to my comment to you. Why would the line pay for it. Did you use your mind before speaking? I don’t think so

  7. Mike Ricci says

    240 million dollars is a lot of money for any building project, let alone a bridge that really does not serve anyone except a private company. And the money that will pay for it is state (taxpayer) money, So we need to ask ourselves, why didn’t the state negotiate years ago for what they knew was going to happen sooner or later. It’s like the taxpayers money going to pay for the new Vikings stadium., except there we can see a more tangible economic impact. There is no tangible economic benefit for this new bridge. The iron mines seem to be in the beginning of a downward spiral, perhaps never to return to their former glory, and that 240 million dollars could certainly be better spent to create a better business environment, attracting a new generation of businesses that can help define and energize a moribund Iron Range economy.

  8. Jane Koschak says

    Well written, Aaron. This bridge is a colossal mistake. The State of MN, meaning the taxpayers, get to pay the 240 million, plus any over runs. Agree with Richard Hoeg’s opinion….

  9. Geologically speaking, it doesn’t seem like a sound idea to build on ground that’s been rocked by decades of blasting, rumbling, and rearranging, but I am not a scientist, nor an economist. But I can tell you that mines used to pay for a great many things, including entire school buildings, community centers, roads, bridges, and the like. But with the mine ownership being farther and farther removed from the actual mines themselves over the decades, it is a joke to think that this project will yield what tax payers will have to put into it for the bridge. Investors are only concerned with profit. But this idea of “give companies ANYTHING to save jobs,” has also proven to be a bad bad idea. Just visit the western states and view all of the polluted areas where they cut regulations thinking that would keep jobs. It didn’t. The mines, drilled, dug, polluted, and left anyway. And left taxpayers with the clean up. The same will happen with Polymet, if they are not forced to follow strict and careful rules. But they won’t. And politicians will cave. And then the last hope for the economy, a.k.a. tourism, will die too. How do I know this? Ask Montana. Ask Wyoming. Ask certain areas of Idaho and Colorado. I’ve seen it with my own eyes in some cases.

  10. Charles Niemi says

    Mr. Brown, I have a question for you, since you seam to be so educated on this issue. What was the cost of rebuilding hwy 53 where it is currently sitting? The bridges and road deck have been in need of repair/replacement for years.

    • The issue with the current location wasn’t cost so much as the mine had a lease agreement allowing them to request the road be moved. Of many options, the state decided on the bridge.

      • Charles Niemi says

        I understand the the agreement between the state and the private company that wishes to use those mineral rights.

        My question is

        1. What is the total buy out cost if left where 53 sits?

        2. What is the cost of rebuilding five bridges (two north bound, two south bound, and one 135 bridge) and the road deck that is currently there if a buy out was used?

      • Charles Niemi says

        On another note. According to this file, http://www.dot.state.mn.us/d1/projects/hwy53relocation/pdf/project-profile.pdf The construction cost is only 156 million dollars. Where is the 240 million number coming into play here?

        • The estimate of $240 million has to do with the entire Highway 53 and 135 reroute project. I take the whole thing together because that’s actual cost. Anyway, you or I could estimate to our hearts desire, the actual cost will probably be much higher. This is a legacy project for too many important people and the scope of what needs to happen is enormous.

          The value of the ore under the ground can be considered many ways. The mines like to say that it’s worth a billion dollars. And really, if we were to attribute every ton of iron to a commercially viable price I can’t dispute that. That is, in essence, why we’re moving a highway. I think the blowback, and the reason this could be regarded as a historical blunder, is because there is a chance much of what we considered “200 year reserves” will not be profitable to mine.

          Furthermore, and many mining people would back me up on this, if the mine had to pay to move the highway they would push the dump into the pit for half the cost. No bridge. Done in half the time, too.

          Instead we’re doing the same thing we did in 1960 and if they ever want the ore on the other side of Rochleau we’ll be moving the damn thing again.

          • Charles Niemi says

            400 million to 600 million to buy out the mineral rights. MNDOT numbers. I dont believe that included the cost of rebuilding that stretch of highway either.

            Utac did have a ramp built some time ago, where the hwy was possibly going to go, even went as far as filling in an old pit. However there are issues with running a hwy through an active pit from my understanding of that proposed route.

          • Yes, I think most people wanted the bridge over the mine, but blasting was a concern. Highway 7 would have been the most cost-effective route, but no one wanted to bypass Eveleth and Virginia’s business district. So we get a whopping bridge over the pit. I realize the impossibility of this situation. To me it feels like the denouement of generations of deference to industry interests over good planning for the communities and people who live there. Honest people can disagree, but that’s how I feel.

            And it always ruffles me that whenever I suggest that we don’t have to kiss the Oliver’s ass that I’m some tree-hugging anti-mining guy. But that’s a separate matter. Thanks for the probing questions, Charles. Good for discussion.

    • Charles Niemi says

      Aaron, i think the run through the pit would have been all road, with a giant culvert for mining equipment to run through. The two problems that i am aware of was dust exposure to a person dumb enough to stand on the road there for 24 hours straight. The second was the shutting down of traffic during blasting, not so much the vibrations from it.

  11. Please correct me if I’m wrong. But is the new stadium being built off taxes from basically the big sins. I do purchase beer and such and also tobacco and what I am paying is unreal. I go to Wisconsin were I’m from and the big sins are still affordable. Go to Michigan and wow its like a candy store. The stadium I will never go to because well I bleed green and gold. Even when they play I will say no. I know the comments are telling me to go home or the sins are bad. I am a miner. I would love to finish out my 18 years and retire. Why should I have to pay for a stadium that I will not set a foot in and no it will not make them a better team. Stop blaming unions for everything wrong. I’ve seen how the other side treats there own and wow am I glad I had people fight for what I have now. I was a machinist for a company that made tools for snap on Mac and craftsman. Our steel market is strict in testing our steel for proper use so it does cost more. Plus with all the standards we have prices go up. Like I said I’m a knuckle dragger mechanic and I maybe wrong on some but its what I hear and the experience I have been through

    • You’re not wrong at all, Joe. I think there is absolutely a good argument to subsidize our steel industry so we can make quality steel products for use in American manufacturing. I would vote for that, but I doubt there is political will at the national level. That could change, but that’s basically the problem. On the open market, commodities like iron ore and base level products like steel are going to lowest cost producers.

      As for the stadium, I think we’re going to come to regret that one in time. But no one wanted the Vikings to move to L.A. I have no comment on your Packer loyalties. Probably best to let that be. 🙂

  12. I wonder how many millions the state has got in taxes over 30-50 years of mining?
    What about schools?
    I guess if it was my land or mineral rights I would make you move it too.
    Tax payers money……………

  13. A study released less than 3 years ago, Feb., 2013 by UMD’s Labovitz School of Business and Economics, found that the existing iron ore industry — mining, processing and shipping taconite — pumped $3.2 billion into the state economy in 2010 and was responsible for 11,500 jobs. The study found that mining accounts for 30 percent of the gross regional product of northeastern Minnesota — the largest sector of the economy — dwarfing other big sectors such as tourism at 11 percent and forestry at 10 percent.

    The top twenty-five direct and indirect jobs dependent on iron ore mining come from the following supporting industries:

    Mining iron ore 3,995
    Food services and drinking places 556
    Transport by truck 377
    Real estate establishments 268
    Wholesale trade businesses 266
    Private hospitals 247
    Electric power generation, transmission, and distribution 225
    Offices of physicians, dentists, and other health practitioners 224
    Nursing and residential care facilities 201
    Nondepository credit intermediation and related activities 196
    Retail Stores – General merchandise 180
    Support activities for other mining 171
    Retail Stores – Food and beverage 167
    Management of companies and enterprises 166
    Securities, commodity contracts, investments, and related activities 162
    Employment services 145
    Civic, social, professional, and similar organizations 127
    Mining and quarrying sand, gravel, clay, and ceramic and refractory minerals 116
    Individual and family services 107
    Retail Stores – Motor vehicle and parts 105
    Retail Nonstores – Direct and electronic sales 104
    Monetary authorities and depository credit intermediation activities 101
    Services to buildings and dwellings 92
    Retail Stores – Miscellaneous 87
    Architectural, engineering, and related services 84
    Total From Top 25 8,469

    An additional 2,757 jobs are due to mining in another 279 various sectors of the economy.

    Grand total? 11,500 direct or indirect jobs due to iron ore mining.

    Mining is what made the Range great and without it, it’s nothing.

  14. Against the Bridge says

    A lot of great points here Aaron, Dee, Mike R., and Ross. When I first found out about this whole thing, i couldn’t believe it. I thought it was so rediculous that a city would lease land from a company. I’d never heard of anything so stupid. But then i suppose back then it was a bunch of frozen immigrants who made this decision. When I heard about how much it was going to cost I immediately wondered how such a small economically depressed community could afford such a massive construction. It just didn’t make sense. Virginia is already struggling so much. And as for jobs from this project? I heard a lot of the workers will be coming from other places. And where IS the economic impact going to be from building this??? ‘Iron Miner’ I hate to break this to you and i know you love your beloved mining industry but the truth is in the last 35 years the mining industry has seen more bad times than good. I know the mines have built schools and community centers but then why is our iron range struggling now? Where are we at now? Why are we having this conversation? Is our area really any better or in good economic health? No. Times are changing. The mines have gradually been going downhill through their roller coaster years. Our populations have been going down on a continuous basis. TIMES ARE CHANGING! We need to find new industries or businesses to come in here. Some day this area will be all mined out. Then whose going to uphold the area?? I agree with Aaron and another in lets use that money for other things to get other businesses and job giving industries in the area now. And that’s a great idea for half the price to push the pile back into the pit. It’ll be half the price and half the time AND much safer! I’m not driving over that bridge. I agree with Dee F. and I’ve also read that the ground underneath the proposed bridge isn’t stable. I thought a land bridge would’ve been a much better idea but they said it would cost more. haha, well, wouldn’t it be smarter and better financially in the long run to build something that won’t collapse and kill people? Isn’t safety more important? The recent blasts have been really strong. This bridge is an accident waiting to happen. Another national news-making headline.

  15. Against the Bridge says

    Oh, and another thing. Did you know that Minnesota actually has a very high chance of having an earthquake?? Yup! It’s true.

  16. Scott S Dahlquist says

    To ranger 47 , Look around you, do you really think the range is great? Compared to what? Downtown Detroit?

  17. When speaking of “what mine’s built”, you must usually refer to the pre-taconite tax amendment system as nothing remotely close to that has been built since. And to remind some of the commenters, they don’t do this willingly, while at the same time leaving the environmental consequences for later generations while dumping their pollution downstream. They also extract the profits and leave the social consequences of the mess, both environmental and social, for the public. There isn’t one single closed plant that is actually reclaimed. All of them have luckily either been re-opened after purchase or after much public subsidy and expended effort. Socially, the closed plant pensions also were dumped onto the public much like the overburden piles. I do not understand how some simply cannot see what surrounds them, with communities that have been disintegrating in front of their very eyes for three decades. Always, the fault is somehow some bogeyman, whether environmentalists or those simply saying the emperor has no clothes. My only explanation is that the co-opted are willingly blind and the comfortable lives they lead out in the Petionvilles of the countryside and the lakes stops them from seeing the reality of Port Au Prince. All resource extraction communities look like this. Virginia looks like Butte looks like Libby looks like Gilbert looks like Hurley looks like Zortman-Landusky looks like West Virginia. The responses all also sound the same, with local boosters blaming environmentalists and outsiders and anyone but the reality of resource extraction communities themselves, which are nothing more than colonial outposts of extractive capitalism that treats the natural world and people as expendable materials. Simply because some cream is skimmed from the top and the locals owe their livelihood does not change the reality of this relationship, no matter how much the state and IRRRB throw at the owners. You are expendable. Now that fewer than ever are benefitting reality is creeping in despite the howls and screams. It’s what happens when the dog you thought you had on a leash turns out to be the first one that eats you when hungry.

  18. So Paul, history doesn’t matter? Whether pre-taconite amendment or post, the greatness of the Range would have never existed without the mines. You liberal crybabies who ignore the facts are so ungrateful.


    Well, how’s that working out for all you “finger pointing, the sky is falling, it’s no fault of mine, brother have you got a dime” activists? The value your pie in the sky, woe is me rhetoric has added to the local economy is zero, nada, nolla, zilch..

  19. Oh, and don’t tell me I don’t know what I’m talking about – ” I still live here. Every day I work on ways to bring economic power for real people who live here. I love this place like you’ll never know. You don’t know me. Your logic is pathetic and destroying this region from the inside out”. So there!

  20. Oh and Scotty S, you make my point perfectly – “Look around you, do you really think the range is great? Compared to what? Downtown Detroit?”

    You look around you you idiot. Mining is going away and what do you have?….Detroit, minus the racial mix but with the same attitude.

  21. Perhaps you need to relax and use your head instead of your heart. The range was never “great”,just as no other community is great. It is merely great for one emotionally if they experienced it that way. It wasn’t great for Native Americans, wasn’t great for blacks, wasn’t great for anyone slightly different or not connected and wasn’t great if you aspired to anything in life beyond what was available. It wasnt great for my older three female cousins who grew up without a father. It was communities that developed in a certain context but they are or were no greater than any other place, and in fact, to many, they were a place to leave without looking back even when there was work. My father, describing his air force experience in England after growing up in the township north of the range, remarked the isolation created a sense for many that the world began and ended at Cotton and Coleraine. Your geographic loyalty not with standing, more of the same, regardless of party affiliation or ideology will not solve the problems. All I have ever said is there needs to be an acceptance of reality and all the boosterism and “I love the range” bumperstickers and screaming at anyone who doesn’t agree with you and yeling “mining is great and you suck” is the problem. Your emotional reaction is the problem. Simply because something is or was doesn’t mean it was ought or meant to be. It isn’t negative to give historical context or discuss the problems of shut down storefronts. Praying for a smaller version of the return to 1978 will not solve the problems as that will never happen again. Stop arguing that that is the path needed to be followed. It goes nowhere.

  22. Ok Paul…so summing up, great is relative. To the vast majority of Rangers, mining made the Range great relative to the rest of this fallen world…and I’m totally relaxed and at peace with that ’cause it’s true.

    By the way, you left out the Somalians, the Rohingyas, the Jews, the Delits, my sister who died of cancer and my nephew who died at birth, my uncle who was killed in WWII…and countless others. Please add them to your laundry list.

  23. Oh Paul….please add my Dad to the list as well. He had to change jobs at least 5 times while I was growing up on that horrible, mining Range. From butcher, to store owner, to miner, to butcher, to tool salesman…and a few I probably missed.

  24. Kelly Nelson says

    Is there a reason why they just don’t do EMINATE DOMAIN: The government does it for the private sector oh ya we are chopped liver.

  25. Ann Nonimous says

    Why would anyone put money into a dead business….mines will be all closed soon. Cant believe that iron mines still exist. Then to put that much money into a cesspool of an area like Virginia? I laugh at the idiots that made that deal.

    • GM wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for the govt. The US will never give up there ability to produce steel! National security reasons. Mining isn’t dead lol! Just like most business it has ups and downs.

      • Dee…GM as it is today wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for the govt., you’re correct. But a much more successful car company would have. The demand for cars didn’t go away, and the “new and improved” GM would have built their fair share if the government would have kept their nose out of it.

        The government, for strictly political reasons, got involved in GM vs. letting them go through a normal bankruptcy. They really f**ked up the works by doing so. I’ll never buy another GM product.

  26. Scott S Dahlquist says

    Oh my have we gone down the rabbit hole. This is how stereo types get started.

  27. The only town in that whole area thats worth anything is Grand Rapids and they arent even considered the iron range! They learned to diversify, the rest of them not so much.

    • Jack…The Grand Rapids economy has been driven by two, maybe three simple factors.

      One, Blandin Paper, now Finnish owned UPM-Kymmene (thank God for the Finns)…and two, government offices (county seat of Itasca County). They’ve been the driving economic force of Rapids from day one. Over the years Blandin has poured tons of money into Rapids, not the least of which is the Reif Center. Take those two enterprises away and you’ve got nothing more than another Hibbing.

      One other factor for which they deserve credit is taking advantage of the cross-roads of Hwy 2 and Hwy 169. Those two roads force a lot of cities folk to go through town…And they’ll never build a by-pass around Rapids for either of those highways. It’s that simple, no “planned economic diversity” b.s.

  28. hardrockminer says

    Wow! The hatred on this site is amazing. None of the posters would have been ‘from here’ without mining and logging. The progressive mind is lineal. The current administration despises the use of natural resources, farming and the raising of cattle (methane! Oh my!). Progressives would like all of the ‘dirty work’ done in the 3rd world. Out of sight, out of mind. Countries with little or no environmental or worker protections. They are in denial as to where every object that they use every day comes from. Plastic-oil. etc.. A true environmentalist would not travel to the BWCA. They would walk everywhere. Aaron, you are a tree hugger. Nothing wrong with that, but you shouldn’t be driving around looking at them, CO2 and all that. Everything that is not grown is mined. That’s a fact.
    The health care industry pays below a living wage for most jobs. Government jobs produce nothing. Without mining this area will die, schools, including colleges will close. We can all become 612 ers. No thanks!

    • I come from five generations of Iron Range miners and mechanics, hard rock. Your logic is stuck in the past. If we could keep this region afloat with mining alone, we’d be doing GREAT. But we can’t. And we aren’t. I fail to see how my skepticism about a quarter billion dollar bridge is “tree hugging.” In fact, I’d like you to point to what I said that made you call me a “tree hugger.” (Though I also fail to see why you have such a big problem with trees).

      It seems that anyone who dares question the status quo, or the mining companies in general, is called names and dismissed. Well, that’s your prerogative, buddy. Good luck with that. My ancestors came here for opportunity, not to become company stooges who can’t think beyond what’s in front of them. And I’m still here. And I always will be. Because I love people and place, not company and slogans.

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